Even if I married a whole harem of women I’d still act like a bachelor

Elaine Showalter

  • Shadows on the Hudson by Isaac Bashevis Singer, translated by Joseph Sherman
    Hamish Hamilton, 560 pp, £16.99, June 1998, ISBN 0 241 13940 6
  • Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life by Janice Hadda
    Oxford, 254 pp, £22.50, February 1998, ISBN 0 19 508420 9

The posthumous English publication of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s mammoth novel Shadows on the Hudson has created such a tumel. Critics have been arguing about the quality of the novel, originally serialised in 1957-58 in the New York Yiddish newspaper the Forward; and about the reasons Singer did not have it translated during his lifetime. It has been compared to the work of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but also condemned as a melodramatic mishmash. First, Richard Bernstein (last December in the New York Times) called it ‘a startling, piercing work of fiction with a strong claim to being Singer’s masterpiece’. Bernstein kvelled about its ‘largeness, the depth and complexity of its exorbitantly vivid, intelligent characters’ and Singer’s ‘skill in weaving into a seamless tapestry various disorderly responses to the savagery of life’. But then another New York Times reviewer, Lee Siegel, called it a ‘chaotic, rambling, repetitive and parochial’ book in a ‘plodding translation’ – a ‘shapeless lump’ compared to Singer’s best stories, which are ‘hard diamonds of perfection’.

Reviewers have also speculated about Singer’s reasons for withholding Shadows on the Hudson during his lifetime. Sinclair sees it as a matter of political prudence: ‘it had always been apparent that Singer was no leftist, but his anti-Communism was always guarded. But here, addressing his Yiddish-speaking audience directly, he is revealed as being somewhat to the right of Senator McCarthy. Perhaps that is why he thought it prudent to consign his text to the shadowlands.’ For Alfred Kazin it was a matter of social camouflage: Singer didn’t want his English-speaking Jewish audience to know how he had caricatured them in the novel. In his review of Shadows on the Hudson in the New York Review of Books (perhaps the last review he published before his death), Kazin suggests that Singer took pleasure in writing ferocious and comic portraits of Holocaust survivors in their ‘physical crudity, intellectual vanity, ideological fanaticism, and sexuality clouded by remembrance of warnings against pleasure absorbed in childhood ... I can well believe,’ he went on, that ‘Singer did not want to tell some of his American readers what he thought of them.’ Bernstein revisited the debate to suggest that Singer was trapped by his own persona and could not break out of it:

My theory, which is offered with less than absolute certainty, is that Singer felt uncomfortable with Shadows on the Hudson, in large part because it no longer fitted in with his needs as a literary celebrity. During his period of public adulation, he served as a kind of Jewish leprechaun, an elfin, grandfatherly figure with the musical old-country accent whose personal tenderness seemed to be matched by a tenderness he felt for his characters. Could it be that Shadows... seemed to him too dark, too lacking in charm, and too commercially unpromising to bother with?

Singer the man is very much at the centre of the dispute; and, as Janice Hadda reveals in her fascinating biography, he was not by any means a leprechaun. A professor of Yiddish literature, a psychoanalyst and a very good writer, she shows that Singer, far from being the folksy laureate of shtetl life, was a cold-hearted, conflicted and calculating man. The shock produced is akin to the revelations about Paul de Man or Philip Larkin. Lee Siegel is horrified by the racism in Shadows, by the ‘crude, alienated caricatures’ of blacks, gentiles and vulgar Miami Jews who ‘make Goodbye, Columbus look like “World of Our Fathers” ’.

According to Hadda, the people who knew Singer divide neatly into ‘those who hate him and can say nothing good about him and those who love him and will lie to protect him. The former are mainly men, the latter almost exclusively women.’ Among the men, Charles McGrath, who was Singer’s editor at the New Yorker, told Richard Bernstein that ‘the public Singer was a creation. He pretended not to be interested in his fame, but he was consumed by success, literary stature and his popularity long past the age when most people are interested in those things. Singer spoke at any B’nai Brith or Hadassah meeting that asked him. He basked in the adulation.’ At the Nobel Prize dinner in Stockholm in 1978 the vegetarian Singer ate artichoke bottoms and avocado: ‘he may have been on a green diet but he hadn’t stopped drinking blood,’ Saul Bellow said recalling the occasion.

The epithets women use are ‘capricious’, ‘captivating’ and ‘childlike’. Singer had a harem of translators, admirers, groupies and muses: Hadda notes the ‘fascinating but implausible fact that Bashevis had slept with all his translators except the one who happened to be telling me about all the others’. He definitely had long-term affairs with at least four women: his Warsaw lover Ronye; his German-Jewish wife Alma; Dobe Gerber, a wild and passionate Holocaust survivor; and Dvora Menashe, an American fifty years his junior. Yet, as Israel Shenker observed, he ‘looked like a worker in a matzoh factory’ – ‘the palest, least colourful man on New York’s Upper West Side’. In any case Singer was always anxious that his readers shouldn’t know that there was any connection between the frail, ascetic, high-minded figure of his novels and what Kazin called the ‘helter-skelter erotic life he was actually living in New York’.

He grew up in an insulated enclave, rabbinical, full of almost medieval prohibitions, exclusions and rituals. As he wrote in his memoir My Father’s Court, the world outside was regarded as unkosher, unclean, tref. People spoke Yiddish rather than Polish. Jewish law was so strict that everything came to a halt on the Sabbath, when a Jewish man could not so much as carry a handkerchief; married women wore wigs, went to the ritual bath, kept all the dietary laws, never looked at a strange man. As a lonely child in an Orthodox community which he intuitively rejected, Singer consoled himself with reading books like Crime and Punishment. His brother Israel Joshua was already a successful writer when Singer was a young adolescent; his sister Hinde Esther – in Singer’s words, ‘a Hasid in skirts’ – was also brilliant but she had hysterical seizures and afflictions, and ‘seemed possessed by a dibbuk’. Under her married name of Esther Kreitman, she eventually published her own novel Der Sheydim Tants (‘The Devil’s Dance’), which described her oppression as a girl.

In 1924 Isaac followed Israel Joshua to Warsaw and became involved in the Writers’ Club; he published his first short story and won a literary prize from the Yiddish journal Literarishe bleter. He was also reading Schopenhauer and Hamsun, translating Thomas Mann and The Possessed. ‘I couldn’t be the sort of Jew my pious parents wanted to make of me,’ Singer later declared. ‘I couldn’t, and didn’t want to be, a non-Jew. I could live neither with, nor without, God. I aspired to the big, free world, but I had understood already early on that the world was nowhere near as big and as free as I had imagined.’ Writing would be his solution to the dilemma. His personal life was just as confused and ambivalent. In Warsaw Jewish women were feminists who wore make-up, danced with men, read erotic novels, debated politics and practised free love. Singer was consumed with sexual desire and also appalled by it, a theme in all his writing; he became involved with Ronye, an ardent Communist, who in 1930 bore his only child, Israel. But he could not see himself settling down with one woman, could not imagine a conventional life as a husband and father.

Out of the intellectual and social turmoil of Warsaw came his first novel, the astounding Satan in Goray (1935). Ostensibly about religious cults among late 17th-century Polish Jews who worship a false messiah, the novel takes seriously ideas of demonic possession. It also introduces some of his basic themes – the demonic, animal lust of women, and the spiritual and emotional resistance of men. The village of Goray is full of weeping, deserted wives, whose husbands have disappeared in pogroms, and who are therefore in limbo according to Jewish law, neither wives nor widows: ‘Often the rabbinical court had to veer from the strict letter of the law and release a woman from the marriage bond.’ Some wander from village to village in search of their husbands. A local girl, Rechele, is possessed by Satan, who ravishes her nightly, and makes her blaspheme and desecrate the Sabbath.

That same year, Singer fled Poland, deserting Ronye and his son, whom he would not see again for twenty years. He travelled by train across Nazi Germany and set sail from Cherbourg on 19 April. In New York his brother introduced him to café society and got him work at the Forward. After a year he was still unsettled, unhappy, having hysterical conversion symptoms, thinking about running away, thinking about suicide. By the summer of 1937, he had begun to adapt and to be reconciled to the new country. Going at weekends to a farm in the Catskills, he began an affair with Alma Haimann Wassermann, a married mother of two. Alma had been raised in a wealthy German-Jewish family, and spoke no Yiddish. In many respects she had little in common with Singer. Even after she had left her husband and children, he was dithering about whether to marry her. They finally married at Brooklyn City Hall on Valentine’s Day 1940.

Singer continued to feel like a ‘bachelor in my soul; even if I married a whole harem of women I’d still act like a bachelor.’ He was insulting to Alma in public, telling Sylvia Weber, the wife of the Forward editor Shimen Weber, that ‘she is a typical German – mean, selfish, and thinks only of herself.’ According to Hadda, this isn’t so far off the mark. The family often noted that both Singer and his wife were frugal and ungenerous. On the other hand, for the first 21 years of their marriage, Alma supported them both, selling dresses at Arnold Constable, Macy’s and Lord & Taylor. She seems to have been the one who handled financial matters, while Singer hid behind the persona of humble immigrant. In his old age and after his death, she would pester friends to get better deals on royalties, or to negotiate a fat sum for the sale of his papers.

Singer’s American career developed slowly, and involved a whole series of self-inventions and pseudonyms. In 1925, in Warsaw, he had renamed himself ‘Yitskok Bashevis’, taking his mother’s name and thereby distancing himself from his father and brother. In New York, working as a journalist, he signed his articles and essays ‘Yitskok Varshavsky’ and ‘D. Segal’. ‘Isaac Bashevis Singer’, the name he used for the English translations of his work, was a construct. But it wasn’t until the Sixties that the twinkly, folksy, accessible (‘I’m in the phone book’) persona of Isaac Bashevis Singer was perfected.

Yet he never completely accepted his American life and identity, or got over his guilt at having escaped the Holocaust. He continued to write in Yiddish, although the Forward’s readership was steadily dwindling. Not until the early Fifties, after Bellow translated ‘Gimpel the Fool’ for the Partisan Review, did Singer’s work reach a wide audience. His reasons for writing in Yiddish were ever-changing and contradictory, and he commented often on the dilemma in essays like ‘Problems of Yiddish Prose in America’. ‘In Yiddish I feel like a man at home,’ he told one reporter, ‘you take off your jacket.’ Then he realised that the metaphor of domestic comfort didn’t work: ‘Although I don’t take off my tie and jacket at home, but this is my own business.’ Moreover, as Hadda says, Singer’s Yiddish ‘was inadequate to the melody and cadence of a brassy new milieu’. He himself commented on the way Yiddish words had to be invented for new things. And to second-generation Jews in the United States, Yiddish was for family secrets, for insults, for jokes. Nathan Detroit’s Yiddishisms in Guys and Dolls (‘So nu, so sue?’) and Leo Rosten’s The Joys of Yiddish introduced it into American popular culture, but always as something comic.

Many of his friends wondered why Singer persisted. ‘What could be more outlandish,’ Israel Shenker wrote, ‘than having a gifted author like Singer ... write in a language like Yiddish which so few could understand?’ Singer himself joked that Yiddish bookshops had special locks to keep authors from breaking in to leave piles of their books. Finally he decided that Yiddish could not be made to express the consciousness of a younger generation, but had to be used to describe a bygone world: ‘The Diaspora – the Jewish communities and their leaders, rabbis, ritual slaughterers, trustees and scholars, the pious shopkeeper and the artisan, the fervent housewife, the yeshiva boy and the child bride – this is and shall remain the subject of Yiddish literature and the determinant of its content and form.’

He insisted that those who wrote in less familiar languages had an obligation to preserve them. When he won the Nobel Prize, he spoke a sentence in Yiddish, the first time it had been heard by the Swedish Academy, in part to emphasise the parallels between Yiddish and Swedish. But, as Shenker points out, Yiddish ‘is a language of remote origin and constant improvement. Its vocabulary and associations shift from country to country, and its meaning depends greatly on the speaker’s tone. Only superficially does Yiddish resemble Swedish. Swedish is a vernacular confined to parts of Scandinavia, but Yiddish can be misunderstood all over the world.’

Becoming a strict vegetarian at the age of 60 was another sign of Singer’s internal conflict. He claimed that from childhood he had felt a deep compassion for animals, particularly birds. ‘I am a vegetarian for the sake of health,’ he joked in interviews, ‘the health of the chicken!’ At banquets he ate salads: ‘in a very small way, I do a favour for the chickens. If I ever have a monument, chickens will do it for me.’ Chickens are the archetypal birds of Yiddish humour, and often associated with stupid or annoying wives. Lenny Bruce had a routine about a man whose wife finds out he is shtupping a chicken. ‘Let your chicken cook you dinner!’ she cries. Singer used to kvetch that the ‘wives of writers have the inclination to put a plate of chicken soup down on manuscripts.’

Hadda suggests that his vegetarianism had many other components. ‘Most likely,’ she writes, ‘his determination not to eat flesh was connected to post-Holocaust feelings of revulsion against human cruelty, misuse of power, and disregard for life.’ In another sense, it was Singer’s secular version of the Jewish dietary laws, a way of setting himself apart. Hadda also refers to the view, prevalent among psychologists, that vegetarians ‘often formulate their world around exclusions, rather than inclusions’.

‘A world formulated around exclusion’ would also describe Singer’s fiction, and especially Shadows on the Hudson. It is set after the Holocaust, between December 1947 and November 1949, in New York and Miami; it ends with an epilogue, written from the new state of Israel by the novel’s protagonist and anti-hero, Hertz Dovid Grein. Like Singer, and like the heroes of several of his other novels, Grein is torn between three women: his traditional wife Leah, his emancipated intellectual mistress Esther, and his lover Anna, a married woman with whom he begins a passionate, doomed affair. Seen through Grein’s eyes, New York is Sodom, where ‘the idols had their worshippers and priests. Their effigies stared down from snow-covered billboards – raging murderers, naked whores.’ He believes that ‘idolatry was a female sin: in the Bible it was almost always practised by foreign women and harlots.’ He despises talk of women’s emancipation as ‘the idle chatter of spiritual eunuchs’. He is disgusted by sex with Anna, her lips ‘voracious as an animal’, reminding him of a lioness in the zoo standing over her chunk of raw meat. But he can’t stop himself: ‘the body did things of its own accord.’

In the American inferno, Grein is surrounded by unbelievers, Jewish intellectuals as helpless and conflicted as himself. He has always cherished a fantasy of running away from other people and from temptation: ‘Flight had become an idée fixe for him. He had thought about it for years and now he even dreamed of it at night. Often it seemed to him that he had been planning it since he was a boy.’ He imagines himself alone, without possessions, without sex, without obligations, free to bury himself in his studies. Finally, desperate and exhausted, he goes to Israel and seeks purification in what he hopes will be separation from the modern world: ‘There is not, and cannot be, any compromise or middle way or reform. All the restrictions and prohibitions of Jewish Law are essential, as necessary as isolating or protecting people from deadly rays or from the plague.’ At the very end of the novel, Grein concludes that he ‘must remain isolated. The whole point of Jewishness is isolation, after all.’

The fantasies of Shadows are almost unbearably painful, masochistic and harsh. Through Grein, Singer rejects everything he himself had become, rejects modernity itself: ‘the modern Jew is, and must be, an assimilationist. His road leads to conversion.’ Singer’s road had led him to a kind of paralysis, to entrapment in a phony persona that became irrevocable once he received the Nobel Prize. From that point on, Hadda argues, ‘any fantasies Singer may still have entertained about the transfer of his talents to a modern, urban American milieu were for ever dashed.’ The press celebrated him as a ‘homespun and humble soul who had faithfully represented the beautiful but tragic world of a moral and pious society that had been cruelly extinguished by the Nazi Holocaust’. He was photographed wearing a yarmulke. From now on he would have to be the Yiddish Yoda. Between the award and his death in 1991 he published almost nothing new.

Shadows on the Hudson will never be a heartwarming musical hit along the lines of Yentl or Fiddler on the Roof. It’s a passionately negative book, particularly hard on its women characters. But I side with Bernstein in thinking it Singer’s masterpiece, an unsettling, uncompromising novel that is often blackly comic as well. Perhaps the American reading audience of the late Fifties, accustomed to Singer as the grandfatherly magician, and to novels of Jewish life such as Marjorie Morningstar and Exodus, would have found it repugnant or incomprehensible. Perhaps they were outraged by the iconoclast hiding behind Singer’s mask. Today we are less sensitive. When Yentl was first produced on Broadway, a rabbi advised the actors on Jewish ritual. He was asked how he could countenance a play with nudity as well as a transvestite heroine. ‘It is an abomination,’ the rabbi said. ‘But so what?’